Flexible working isn't just a 'women's issue'

So long as working parents are seen as a special case, the full benefits of flexibility will remain out of reach.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020
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Most of the working mothers MT knows would call flexible working A Good Thing. (One describes it as the Thing that Stops her Head Exploding.) Its benefits are clear, and the arguments for it well-rehearsed. For businesses, it helps to attract and retain talented working parents. As a society, it gets us closer to gender equality by counteracting the tangible motherhood penalty.

Yet, while mothers are the group that would most benefit from flexible working arrangements right now, it would be a mistake to see this as only a mother’s matter. Indeed, doing so would miss the point – and the full business benefits – of flexibility.

Changing tastes

Women with children clearly aren’t the only ones seeking flexibility at work. Fathers, people caring for elderly parents and people with disabilities often have very similar needs. More generally, though, flexible working has become something the rest of us want too, whether we strictly need it or not.

A recent survey on work-life balance by the Department for Work and Pensions found that 41% of employees had taken flexible work arrangements into account when deciding to work for their current employer.

There could be numerous reasons. Maybe you really hate the rush hour commute. Maybe you work better propped up in bed on a Sunday morning than you do welded to a desk on a Thursday afternoon. Maybe you just want the option of a lie-in every now and again.

These aren’t self-entitled indulgences or symptoms of laziness: you’re adults, you’re professionals and you know how to get the best out of yourselves. It’s both absurd and counterproductive for businesses to expect conformity to set hours for the sake of it.

Indeed, research from the Agile Future Forum (AFF) indicates that firms bringing in less rigid working practices across the organisation saved 3-13% of workforce costs, which could be increased by a further 3-7% if agile practices (which AFF prefers over flexible) were implemented more extensively.

One case study, Black Horse Finance, saw a 10% rise in productivity in its new business and fleet operations department after introducing agile practices, with engagement rising 7%.

‘It is clear that there is a coincidence of interests here. Employers need an agile workforce to remain competitive, and employees – not just women, but millennials, older workers and men too – want to work in more agile ways to support how they want to live their lives nowadays,’ says Fiona Cannon, director of the AFF and group director of diversity and inclusion at Lloyds Banking Group.

A step toward equality

Thinking of flexibility as a working mother’s issue not only prevents its benefits from being felt across the workforce, but also perpetuates the idea that working mothers are somehow being given special treatment.

So long as working mothers are the only ones working part time or leaving at 5pm as a result of out-of-work-commitments, they will continue to suffer conscious or unconscious discrimination as a result of it. It’s only when it’s the norm for everyone that people will stop seeing it as skiving or a lack of commitment.

Of course, creating genuine flexibility across the workforce is no small task, says Cannon, whose book The Agility Mindset discusses the practicalities of workplace agility.

‘How the relationship between people and organisations change to accommodate this is perhaps the central management question of our time. Managing an agile workforce requires a different approach, where traditional HR practices such as talent management, performance management and career progression need to evolve,’ Cannon says.

Communication will be paramount, and that includes setting ground rules from the beginning. (Replying three hours late to the irate voicemail asking why you’re late for a meeting with ‘oh, I don’t work Tuesdays – didn’t I tell you?’ is unlikely to cut it.)

But if we want to reap the benefits of an engaged, productive workforce, drawing from the full range of talent, we’ll have to figure it out somehow.  

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